Live Review: The Milk Carton Kids + Jenny Owen Youngs, The Barbican, London – 19th January 2024

Photo: J.Aird

Five years to the day, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale returned to The Barbican’s main hall, with their latest album ‘Only See the Moon’ which has garnered the kind of reviews that The Milk Carton Kids have become accustomed to.  Let’s not be coy about this, The Milk Carton Kids are Americana favourites, and Americana UK are in no way immune to their combination of emotionally weary – and occasionally uptempo and spikey – songs built around two voices and two guitars.  Live they add in a reputation for being purveyors of amusing between song banter, a leavening on the undeniable emotional hits of their music.

Naturally the stage was set for a single microphone and backlit with what would be described as a pair of hairdressing salon lights, all designed to create the intimate atmosphere their music demands.  Promisingly there was a banjo propped up at the back of the stage.  The pair wandered on stage in their matching suits – Joey Ryan offsetting his more formal tie with brown shoes whilst Kenneth Pattengale was his usual more ruffled self, trainers on his feet and a handkerchief tied high up the neck of his acoustic guitar.  Their first notes were greeted with appreciative calls of recognition prompting Joey to quip “Really?  I don’t even know what song this is yet.”  It was ‘Younger Years‘ from ‘All the things I did and all the things that I didn’t do‘ a song that so carefully acknowledges the passage of time, and the dark thoughts that can come in the night.  Although Kenneth looked a little weary – we’ll come to that later – both the playing and the singing was all that one would want it to be.

Photo: J. Aird

Undress the World‘ from ‘Prologue‘ showed that this wouldn’t be an evening of just new material, although it was acknowledged that, although this might not be a statement of artistic purity,   “We’re selling our new album too.”  A Milk Carton Kids performance is always peppered with humour and often it’s in the form of surreal asides from Joey, as when he expounded on having known opener Jenny Owen Youngs for ten years, but having only met her  that day.  He continued to explain that her plurals are an issue for him – he’s always donating the wrong name an additional “s”.  It’s funny – but that combination of surreal juxtaposition and, in Joey, the slight appearance of not being quite up to speed suddenly recalled an earlier musical duo with a comedy bent.  Surely Joey is channelling the spirit of Tommy Smothers?  It was a realization that became more concrete with every anecdote as the evening progressed.  There was another first to mention – with this appearance selling out a few minutes before stage time they were officially playing their biggest headlining gig ever.  As we moved into the latest album territory it was easy to see why The Milk Carton Kids’ star is on the rise.  ‘North Country Ride‘ begs the question how does such a romantic song have such intense and aching longing in it?  And the answer is with the inclusion of lines like “I know how hard it is to fight with the whole of the world / I know the scars…you had the most beautiful scars” that hint at both the physical and the emotional, with the suggestion that, through love, these things have been made the past.

Photo: J. Aird

Such seriousness has to be balanced with some levity and the arrival of the banjo section brought that as Joey explained how seven years of practice had made it possible for him to bring a new sound to the duo, which would also allow them to “appeal to a younger demographic.”  But Joey’s clawhammer playing on songs such as ‘One True Love‘ really does bring another facet to their music – here’s the feel of an Appalachian murder ballad opaquely presented through ambiguous lyrics.  And when Kenneth Pattengale takes a solo spot for the title track of ‘I Only See The Moon‘ we’ve drifted into Americana crooning.  The Milk Carton Kids are truly adept at these mood and pace swings – the slower than slow ‘Wheels And Levers‘ taps into a fifties romanticism, with a lingering Italian-American feel, and is followed up by the nothing less than raucous ‘Honey, Honey.’

It was surely a calculated step to close out the set with ‘I Still Want A Little More‘, a title that would surely reflect the thoughts of the whole audience, and was at least a clear promise of an Encore.  Not that The Milk Carton Kids had scrimped on their time, but who wouldn’t want another hour (or more)?  It was at least a clear promise of an Encore. ‘I Still Want A Little More‘ offered another opportunity for Kenneth to show off his guitar-playing prowess – and if you enjoy speed picking then there was much to thrill and enjoy.

The encore came with an apology – they had planned on playing a couple of songs but due to jet lag and a sore throat Kenneth didn’t feel able to do them.  There had been signs of this on the last couple of songs, with his musical partner looking pretty done in, although Joey assured him, rightly, that his singing had been good all night.  Heck, the Milk Carton Kids with hacking coughs would sing most others off the stage.  There followed a long, and mostly good-natured explanation from Joey as to why they were about to not win the Best Folk Album Grammy for the fifth time.  Not only were they up against Old Crow Medicine Show, Paul Simon, Dom Flemons, Rufus Wainwright, and Nickel Creek but they were also contending against Joni Mitchell’s first release “in sixty years!”  They may be right, but they might still have a shot.  The audience cry for a banjo song garnered the revelation that they’d played all the banjo songs they have, and so instead they closed out with the heartbreakingly beautiful ‘Will You Remember Me?‘  And the simple answer is, oh yes, fondly and for a long time.

Photo: J. Aird

The opening set came from Jenny Owen Youngs who has a new Josh Kaufman-produced album called ‘Avalanche‘ on Yep Roc – it’s her first full album for a decade.  Not that she’s been twiddling her thumbs all that time as she explained in a steady stream of between-song discussion involving marriage, divorce, a second marriage and “running a business  with your ex-wife.”  Clearly an amicable divorce as the business was  a podcast called ‘Buffering the Vampire Slayer‘ which discussed every episode and included an episode-specific song from Youngs.  They’ve moved on to a new podcast called ‘The Ex-Files‘, for which Youngs has decided to only sporadically illuminate the activities of Mulder and Scully through song.  One of these featured on the night – ‘Next Time Around‘ which we’re assured is a complete spoiler for Season 4 Episode 5.

Photo: J. Aird

The majority of the set though was  drawn from ‘Avalanche‘, including the title track, a catchy examination of emotional failings and an inability to not dramatically commit. “When I try to say the things I can’t / It comes out like an avalanche / How else do I prove that I adore you.” It’s a great opener. ‘Knife Went In’, is a far more loving slow ballad than the title suggests, with a catchy chorus.  ‘Goldenrod‘ takes a surprise turn, seemingly a breakup song it reveals itself as a far more permanent parting.  Set closer ‘Gravitron‘ intertwines the sense of defying gravity that the amusement park ride of the same name offers to the lighter-than-air feeling of new love.  It’s rather pretty.

About Jonathan Aird 2689 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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